Immigration Raids Major Firm Over Alleged Visa Fraud

Immigration investigators have conducted a series of raids on a multi-national firm working on major Australian mining and infrastructure projects as part of one of the nation's biggest inquiries into working visa fraud.

SMH, by Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker, 5 February 2015

The raids targeted the offices of Murphy Pipe & Civil (MPC), with documents and other material seized.

The firm has allegedly assisted dozens of Irish workers fraudulently obtain 457 temporary skilled and other visas to work on key national projects, including the multi-billion dollar Queensland Curtis Liquefied Natural Gas project and Western Australia's Sino Iron project.

The probe was launched in response to revelations in Fairfax Media last year about the failure of the immigration department to investigate wide-scale visa rorting on the giant projects and in a range of other sectors.

The MPC inquiry is one of several investigations reopened in response to the Fairfax Media expose and forms part of a major and ongoing revamp of the way the department investigates alleged visa fraud.

It also raises questions about whether some of Australia's biggest infrastructure and mining players, including the company managing the Curtis LNG project, QGC, have failed to conduct thorough due diligence on the workforces supplied by sub-contractors such as MPC.  QGC did not respond to questions.

The revelations have sparked fresh debate about the use of overseas workers to meet labour shortages, which the business lobby says is vital.

The federal government is considering relaxing entry requirements for short-term foreign workers in a move opposed by unions, which claim the overseas worker visa schemes cost local jobs and erode conditions.

Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney said the action against MPC highlighted the need for reform of the  visa system.

"Unions have always had concerns that employers are abusing the 457 visa program to bring in cheaper labour from overseas. Cracking down on bad employers is just a band aid solution when in fact the whole 457 visa system needs to be fixed," Ms Kearney said.

"A full Senate Inquiry into the temporary visa workforce is the only way to stop foreign workers from being exploited and to make sure employers are genuinely trying to recruit Australian workers before looking overseas."

The chief executive of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Roman Quadvlieg, told Fairfax Media  a new investigations division was being created to target "entities seeking to commit visa fraud here in Australia". It will also investigate transnational organised crime syndicates.

He said the new division "will allow a stronger focus and approach to border crime, whether that crime is related to attempts to circumvent physical border controls or to rort our visa system".

Immigration investigators have recently interviewed at least five whistleblowers who have worked for MPC, including two who previously contacted the immigration department about the rorting but were initially ignored or had their complaints subject to only a superficial investigation.

Immigration officers are now examining allegations that dozens of overseas workers employed by MPC may have lied about their qualifications or job role in order to get a skilled migration visa.  It's understood that civil or criminal sanctions, or a ban on the company hiring foreign workers, may be a possible outcome of the probe.

MPC internal documents obtained by Fairfax Media reveal that the company knew that dozens of overseas employees had told the immigration department they would be working in skilled roles, such as a project administrator, when their actual role involved a menial or unskilled job.

Among the most alleged egregious examples of migration fraud by MPC is the company's role in continuing to sponsor a female Irish worker even though she had left the company, to help her get permanent residency. In another case, an unskilled Irish labourer submitted a handwritten resume only to have it typed up and rewritten. He was then employed on a 457 visa as a "project administrator".

The MPC case also raises questions about the sanctions regime implemented by the department. The company had been warned and previously hit with an infringement notice by the department, but this appears to have had no affect on its regard for Australia's immigration laws.

A spokesman for MPC claimed the recent raids on its premises by immigration investigators were routine and  the firm "has never intentionally committed a breach of immigration laws."

The immigration department revamp has been led by a top federal police officer, Commander John Beveridge, and the new investigation team will be led by Assistant Commissioner Steve Lancaster. Immigration officers will also be trained by the federal police as part of the reforms.

The inquiry into MPC is one of the first tests of the new investigation team's operations.

Last August, Fairfax Media published leaked internal immigration files detailing the failure of the immigration department to thoroughly investigate thousands of cases of suspected visa fraud.

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